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Trying the Harvard flying experience with Classic Wings at IWM Duxford

PUBLISHED: 16:18 12 June 2018 | UPDATED: 16:31 12 June 2018

Classic Wings Harvard

Classic Wings Harvard

Classic Wings 2018

Duxford-based Classic Wings has a new Harvard on its fleet – we sample the flying experience on offer to pilots and enthusiasts. Words Colin Goodwin | Photos Philip Whiteman

It is the most poignant end to a story in a motoring magazine that I’ve ever read. The brilliant writer, Phil Llewellin−who sadly is no longer with us−had been touring notable places of Battle of Britain history in a Bentley Mulsanne (the feature appeared in Car in August 1990, fifty years after the battle).

In his last paragraph he noted that on 18 July 1940 a student pilot who’d just celebrated his 23rd birthday, had taken off from RAF Ternhill in Shropshire on a training flight in a Harvard. Tragically he crashed and was killed. Phil went on to report that in September that year the pilot’s widow gave birth to a son who, fifty years later was commissioned to roam the country gathering Battle of Britain material in a red Bentley Mulsanne.

That was the first time that I’d heard of a Harvard. Until then Harvard was an Ivy League college in America. I next met the aircraft in another piece of atmospheric writing, Geoffrey Wellum’s fantastic First Light − in my opinion the finest book about flying to come out of the Second World War. Wellum’s description of being lost in a Spitfire over the North Sea strikes a chord with any pilot who has been lost in bad weather. Wellum also describes brilliantly his training in Harvards during which several friends were killed in the American aircraft. When I read it it reminded me of Phil Llewellin’s story and the death of his father.

I doubt that many people have a romantic fascination with the Harvard. It is not by any stretch a beautiful or pretty aircraft. It looks big and dumpy, both on the ground and in the air. It is not even by reputation that great to fly and word is that it has some evil habits. All this may be so, but I’ve been busting to fly in one for years.

Classic Wings Harvard PHOTO: Philip WhitemanClassic Wings Harvard PHOTO: Philip Whiteman

There are two based at my White Waltham base, one a newcomer and another that’s a long term resident. I have lurked next to them with my flying kit in a ‘ready for action, Sir’ pose but so far no free rides have been forthcoming.

But as is often the case, lady luck stepped in. The Editor rang: “Classic Wings at Duxford have been on the blower,” he reported, “they’ve just got a new Harvard, to be operated alongside their fleet of Tiger Moths and de Havilland Rapides and wonder if we’d like to pop up for a go? You fly it and I’ll capture your grin on the Leica.”

So here we are on a lovely sunny day at Duxford. Chuffing cold, but great flying weather. There’s another reason that I’ve been champing for a flight in a Harvard: I’ve been in the back of a Tiger Moth and a Spitfire and this advanced trainer will therefore complete the experience of following a student fighter pilot’s journey into combat.

We’re met by Classic Wings’ Stuart Etheridge and Dale Featherby. Etheridge is one of the directors of the thriving business and Featherby will be my instructor for the flight. Outside Classic Wings’ office (one of Duxford’s many WWII huts) sits G-BDAM.

Classic Wings Harvard PHOTO: Philip WhitemanClassic Wings Harvard PHOTO: Philip Whiteman

This is a Harvard with a long and well travelled past. Built by Noorduyn in 1943, AT-16 Harvard IIB FE992 (its original serial number) was taken on charge in April of that year by the Royal Canadian Air Force and was used for training at Moncton, New Brunswick and then at Weyburn, Saskatchewan. Here’s another personal Harvard connection: my dad’s best friend in the war, after whom I’m named, trained on Harvards at Moncton before flying my dad about in a Wellington. I have a lovely shot of him being given his wings by WWI ace Billy Bishop with a row of Harvards stretching out behind.

After the war it was sold to the Swedish Air Force (becoming a Sk-16A in the process), then flew in UN colours in Lebanon before leaving the service and entering private ownership in Norway. From Norway the Harvard travelled to Booker and became G-BDAM. Throughout the ’80s FE992 passed through several hands including Aston Martin and Pace Petroleum owner Victor Gauntlett, The Harvard Formation team, and Norman Lees and Gary Numan’s radial pair display team. The Harvard returned to Canada in 2003 before being bought by Classic Wings and returning back to the UK for a full refit in 2016.

It’s a big beast, the Harvard. Featherby is going up front, I’ll be in the back. “There are a few controls that you don’t have in the back,” he explains. During training during the war the instructor would sit in the back from the off because the student would have already done a lot of hours in a basic trainer and the instructor himself would have been extremely current on the Harvard. It’s quite a step up into the rear cockpit which a nineteen-year-old Goodwin would have found easier than this 55-year-old old example.

First impression is of an extremely spacious cockpit. Second is of a very solid and agricultural environment. The joystick is a very sturdy affair that looks as though it is strong enough to prop up the side of a building. In front of me is a simple panel with the usual WWII instrumentation including an artificial horizon that looks very difficult to use, rpm and manifold gauges and a smattering of T & P gauges for the engine.

Classic Wings Harvard PHOTO: Philip WhitemanClassic Wings Harvard PHOTO: Philip Whiteman

Ah yes, the donk. Part of the Harvard attraction is that radial engine stuck on the nose. I’ve been in Stearmans and DC-3s but my round engine experience is very limited. The motor that Dale Featherby is about to bring to life is a Pratt & Whitney Wasp R-1340-AN1. Vital statistics are nine cylinders, 22 litres displacement, single speed supercharger and a power output of 550hp.

This ubiquitous engine was fitted to so many different aircraft, including choppers, it would take the rest of this feature to list them.

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Here’s some other flight tests:

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Dale has to go through quite a palaver to start the Wasp; an operation that’s not possible from the rear cockpit−at least not the important bits. For some reason I have a duplicate hand fuel pump lever−perhaps the instructor was given one in case the engine’s mechanical pump failed and the student became frozen in panic or was busy with another problem such as preparing to make a forced landing.

Anyway, Featherby gives the lever a dozen or so pumps to get fuel to the motor and uses the panel-mounted primer to squirt fuel into the cylinders.

Now the fun bit. The Wasp has an inertia or flywheel starter. A multi position switch down by Dale’s right knee is flicked to start the flywheel spinning. About fifteen to twenty seconds is long enough to build up suitable inertia after which the switch is flicked to the next position and the propeller suddenly starts turning over impressively quickly. At this point the booster coil is also triggered and the engine should, we hope, start… Which it doesn’t.

Not enough priming, opines the man in front. We wait a few minutes, having had Stuart Etheridge work up a sweat on the ground hand-turning the Hamilton Standard prop through a few blades. More whirring from the inertia starter and bang, pop, bang bang, pop and she’s running. Within seconds the uneven beat settles down to a smooth idle.

Harvard notesHarvard notes

The view out from the back isn’t brilliant so Dale does the driving to taxi us out to the threshold. We’re taking off from Duxford’s grass with me in control and Dale following through on the stick. The tailwheel is unlocked by pushing the stick all the way forward. To my left is the engine control quadrant with throttle on the left, and oddly, mixture in the middle and prop control on the inside, on the far right of the quadrant.

We can assume that the trainee pilot of the 1940s hadn’t had to deal with a constant-speed prop before, so would be unlikely to be confused by the lever’s placement on the far right. I’m more used to it being next to the throttle.

Featherby tells me that 36in of manifold pressure and 2,250rpm−maximum takeoff power−will get us off the ground nicely, which in practice means that the pitch control will be fully forward and the throttle opened to the gate as we leave the ground. I’m told to expect a swing to the left and so am ready to give a dose of right rudder. The pedals, like everything else in this aircraft, are built to last.

Aviation enthusiasts, particularly those who’ve not been in a small aircraft before, will in the next few minutes discover that their cheque to Classic Wings is money well spent. The character of an aircraft, like a motorcycle, is very much down to its powerplant. The Pratt & Whitney generates a great rumble and shakes the airframe as we accelerate across the grass. There is no kick in the back, just a gradual gathering of speed.

Classic Wings Harvard PHOTO: Philip WhitemanClassic Wings Harvard PHOTO: Philip Whiteman

“Lift the tail,” says Featherby, “and let it fly itself off”. He brings the gear up and retracts the flaps. We climb at 95 knots which is the same speed that my RV-7 is best flown skywards at.

I love the moment when you start to feel how a new aircraft handles. I have nothing like the experience of our man Dave Unwin. Not even a hundredth of the number of types he has in his log book. I’m collecting them slowly though, and the Harvard is an epic line of ink on the page.

The immediate impression is heaviness in the controls, particularly in roll−only to be expected in a heavy aircraft and especially after stepping out of a responsive 1,090 lb Van’s. I’ve backed the manifold pressure down to thirty inches for the climb and the prop back to 2,000rpm. We’re going up for about twenty minutes, which is exactly the length of the shortest sortie on offer to a Classic Wings customer. It doesn’t sound long but it’s intense if you’re trying to take in as much as possible.

Lovely weather for aerobatics. Cruising around you set 26/1,850 but for aeros Dale instructs me to set between 28-30 inches and 2,000rpm. “What do you fancy doing,” he asks. “How about I do a barrel roll then you have a go at something?” After Featherby does a neat roll, I decide to stick with a simpler aileron roll. “Nose up high,” says my instructor, “but not quite ankles on the horizon”.

Classic Wings Harvard PHOTO: Philip WhitemanClassic Wings Harvard PHOTO: Philip Whiteman

Stick hard over, the forces are fairly strong and the roll slow. It’s not a particularly neat one to say the least, but the second in the other direction is better. I paid more attention to the rudder. You don’t need much in the RV and I’ve got into the bad habit of neglecting the pedals in flight.

Now for a loop. We’d had words about this in our briefing but over the intercom Dale Featherby reiterates that you really have to concentrate when at the top of the loop. “Otherwise,” he explains, “the aircraft will roll right way up and continue into a spin if nothing is done to recover−not nice!” We’ll have none of that then. I wonder how many students killed themselves in Harvards during their first solo aerobatic experiments?

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A few more flight tests:

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For the roll we used around 140kt: the loop will require 160-170 on entry. Up we go−I suspect Dale is helping with a bit of backpressure. At the top I let it float and thankfully there’s no flipping right way up nonsense and we come back down the other side. ‘Pull now, more, bit more,’ says Featherby.

All too soon we have to head back to Duxford. “I’ll do a run and break,” says Featherby “and then you take over to take her downwind.” We want ‘twenty squared’ downwind. Dale does the important job of dropping the wheels while I select full flap as we turn the corner onto base. I’m still at the stick and we are on final approach. The man in front is clearly ready to take over.

The view is pretty poor from the back and I wish I’d done a curved approach and offset a few degrees of the runway. Bit of trim, speed on approach 85 knots. We want 75 over the threshold. The Harvard is exceptionally solid on the approach and the speed is very stable. I must have got lucky with the trim wheel.

You’ve really no option but to look out the side. Luckily the super-experienced Dale is giving first-class commentary. He might have helped with the stick but it’s hard to tell through such a substantial piece of metal. Anyway, the landing isn’t bad and the big trainer tracks straight down the grass. My turn to try taxying it: just a tiny blip of the throttle accelerates us. It’s not a difficult aeroplane to handle on the ground despite its size.

Classic Wings Harvard PHOTO: Philip WhitemanClassic Wings Harvard PHOTO: Philip Whiteman

I can see why many who have flown the Harvard are dismissive of it. Certainly a young pilot stepping from it into a Spitfire, probably nervous about flying the iconic (even then) fighter for the first time, would have been thrilled and relieved by the Spit’s light and responsive controls.

But I think that the Harvard is the perfect advanced trainer, in the same way that the Tiger Moth - which is also a flawed and not especially delightful aircraft that is difficult to fly well−was the perfect ab initio trainer. I’d encourage you to come to your own conclusions by actually having a go in a Harvard. At the very least you’ll find it a fascinating experience.

Flights in the aircraft cost from £429 for 20min. Type conversion courses are available. For further info, see: www.classic-wings.co.uk

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